Monday 28 July 2008

Good-bye Molly

This wasn't the post I planned to write tonight - a tale about how, yesterday, I'd got to dividing for the heel of last week's sock and then discovered that in my distraction at the hospital, I'd cast on and knitted 36 EXTRA stitches and hadn't noticed until I'd knitted 72 rows. (How didn't I notice I was knitting something that would fit an elephant instead of DH???)

Anyway, that went out the window when I got back from lunch to find an email from my sister (a.k.a. "Eldest Sis"). Eldest Sis broke the sad news that our Auntie Molly died in her sleep last Thursday, at the age of 89. She'd been living in a nursing home in Brisbane for the last three years. Auntie Molly had been my mum's youngest brother's wife.

I sat there at work feeling sad and distracted and angry. The anger was all directed at my mum for not maintaining closer relationships with her siblings and relations. They were in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth (amongst other places), we were isolated in Melbourne. There wasn't a stream of letters back and forth, nor were there frequent telephone calls (we didn't have a phone until I was at primary school). I don't know why this happened, except possibly due to the tyranny of distance.

I didn't really know my Aunt - and I regret that. I have a handful of memories from when we visited for a week when I was 10; and I spent the afternoon with her on my last trip to Brisbane in 2001.

What I do have are my mum's stories; they had been good friends back in the 1940's and '50s before mum moved down to Melbourne. There are loads of stories: how my tiny 4ft 8" aunt had to stand on a step to kiss her 6ft 4" husband; how she used to shop for her shoes in the children's department, often buying her clothes there, too, when she could get classic styles. Then there was the time mum and Auntie Molly went shopping for maternity clothes, when Molly was 7 months pregnant. A snooty shop assistant instructed mum to take her "sister to the children's department. We don't serve little girls here!". Molly turned around to protest and the shop assistant was rendered speechless.

I will always remember Molly as the matriarch: mother of 6 and grandmother to I-don't-remember-how-many. (Being 8 years younger than her youngest child, I fall somewhere between the two.) When we stayed with them in 1975, there was a big family party in the back garden. All the daughters and daughters-in-law brought food, while the boys manned the barbecue. Auntie Molly sat in the middle whilst the action happened around her, a bit like a conductor in front of an orchestra organising this daughter to fetch something, that daughter-in-law to pass around the plates. She was queen of all she surveyed.

Good-bye Auntie Molly and God-bless.

- Pam

Saturday 26 July 2008

That was the week that was

It's been a disjointed week and this will probably be a disjointed post. On the plus side, we got the remortgage approved (I still don't know for what the house was valued, so I suspect they just said it is worth what we say it is).

On the down side, DH's mum phoned last Saturday evening, "can you take me to hospital?". She'd been vomiting blood. The doctor had prescribed her a long course of anti-inflamatory tablets and she was three weeks in. The drugs had caused a stomach ulcer. We spent four hours in A&E until they finally admitted her to hospital. Apparently her Hb was 5. They gave her two units of blood on the Sunday, a gastroscopy on the Monday and discharged her on the Wednesday. She is much better. Her colour is healthier than it was a month ago.

I spent Saturday night stress knitting while we waited. DH and I'd been getting ready to go to our first Prom Concert of the year when she called, so I had a sock in my bag ready to knit. It calmed me down and kept me waiting patiently.

The knitting had the "appointment effect", too. Have you ever noticed, when you're waiting for an appointment and just get settled into your knitting, they'll call you in faster? Even if you're 15 minutes early? Well, I didn't do more than two rows in succession without someone coming in to the bay to examine my MIL or take blood or give her medication.

I worked from home on Wednesday so that I could collect my MIL from hospital. This is the first time I've seriously tried to do it, plugging the work laptop into our broadband and getting on with the job. (The last time I tried working from home, it was back when I had no work to do.) An interesting experiment. I found that I spent less time on the internet than when I'm sitting in the office. Also that, even losing 2 hours to go to the hospital, I got quite a lot done. (No, I'm not counting the two loads of laundry that line-dried.) The connection to the server was actually faster than the one I have at Site.

There were down sides: not having all my files around was a big one. Not everything has been scanned and stored electronically. Also, being invisible - maybe it's my paranoia, but I think that if you work from home you need to have concrete achievements to show for it because people can't see you on the phone to the client answering questions. Wednesday was a bitty day, one of those that whilst I did a lot, didn't result in much concrete output.

- Pam

Saturday 19 July 2008

Things that are more valuable than their price

Just over a week ago, I sent the bowl of the food processor crashing to the floor with my elbow. Naturally, with our hard as iron kitchen floor, it broke. After a bit of a search (3 separate attempts), I managed to find a replacement bowl online for £25 plus p&p. Of course, I could have purchased a new food processor but my inner-Fool rebelled at the thought of replacing a perfectly good machine when it only needed one part.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the things that I value far beyond their initial cost and I came up with a list of six things.
  1. As the inspiration, the food processor gets poll position. It gets used at least once a week. I'm always whipping up pancakes or muffins in the blender; cakes, doughs, breadcrumbs and nut-loaves in the main bowl. I don't know how much time or money it has saved me over the years since DH gave it to me as a birthday present, but I do know that there are things I wouldn't make without it to do the hard work.
  2. The freezer compartment of our side-by-side fridge/freezer. So much of what we buy ends up in the freezer, either deliberately (meat from our quarterly trips to the butcher) or as the consequence of other actions (an excess of lunch boxes filled on the weekend). I do not know how people survive without a decent-sized freezer.
  3. My little Samsung mobile phone. It's six years old and counting, too old to have a camera or a colour screen. I think it cost £120 new. I'm on pay as you go, so I've never paid a penny of line rental, but I've used it on most of my trips abroad (except to North America - it's dual band, not tri-band). Oh, and calls to Australia cost 20p a minute - is cheaper than using a land-line - always convenient for those "happy birthday" telephone calls to Oz.
  4. Our microwave-convection oven. Another £120 purchase, but this time 8 years ago. At the time, DH questioned why we needed a combi-oven, when we could pick up a microwave for half the price and we had a large stove with twin ovens (I think my response was an illogical but persuasive "Because I want one!"). Fast forward three years to when we moved into this house and we discovered that there was no 480-volt electric hook up for the stove (the hob is gas, the ovens are electric). Remodelling the kitchen is high on the renovations list, but until then the convection feature is getting a lot of use. I bake cakes in it, cook roasts, grill sausages, make pies, etc, etc. The usuable space is a bit small - at the most 12 inches by 8 high - and my main roasting dish is a 12-inch deep-crust pizza tray, but there isn't much that can't be cooked in there without a little planning.
  5. Every knitting needle and crochet hook I have ever owned. And the entire contents of the stash. Self explanatory to knitters. For non-knitters: knitting is far more than the act of "making a sweater". There is a large amount of entertainment value in the act of creating something from scratch, particularly if that act involves cables or lace.
  6. My sewing machine. Ditto point 5. I used to work off Great Portland Street, when it was still nominally London's garment district. Just around the corner from us was a little shop crammed with end-of-roll fabrics for £5 a metre or so. My fabric stash still holds several metres from those days (I have nowhere to sew.) I have made skirt suits from 3 metres of fabric, at a quarter of the cost of comparable items in the shops. Sure, it takes time and effort to sew an outfit but no more so than most people waste watching TV (knitters/crocheters excluded). The sewing machine was a gift from my mum, who taught me to sew when I was in pre-school.
- Pam (what about you? Could you list 5 items that add more value to your life than their initial price)

Friday 18 July 2008

Hurry Up Already!

We are going through the trauma of remortgaging the house. Our five-year fixed rate will expire in September and throw us at the mercy of the bank's variable rate, 3% higher than what we've been paying.

When we bought the house in 2003, we got the longest fixed rate deal we could - they don't do "whole of life" fixed rate mortgages here. Interest rates had bottomed out (the Bank of England base rate fell as low as 3.5%) and started their slow rise again and we thought we were lucky to secure a 4.39% fixed rate for five years. There were only a handful on the market. Several super-optimistic members of the peanut gallery thought we were mad: "What happens if interest rates go down again?" Of course, they never did.

This time around, there are actually some 10-year fixed rate deals around. Or should I say theoretically available. Thanks to the credit crunch and bank paranoia, the actual availability of mortgages changes on an hourly basis. It took our mortgage broker four applications to secure us a potential mortgage - the first three were withdrawn by the time he got the paperwork completed and submitted!

In theory, we have secured a 10-year fixed rate deal at 6.39%. All we need now is the survey. Which brings me to now. This minute. The surveyor is due between 10am and 12am today. It's 10.54 by the computer's clock. And I'm waiting for him to arrive. I wish he'd hurry up!

I HATE waiting.

At the best of times, this whole process has made me an emotional wreck, but the waiting around is making it worse. Everything hangs on the surveyor's visit. Absolutely everything. I won't be happy until he's been, and gone, and confirmed the valuation we want for the house. We need him to appraise the house at a quarter higher than what we paid for it - we are extending the mortgage so that we can do much needed renovations (including new gutters, a new boiler, and proper roof for the kitchen). These aren't luxuries. The flat roof over the kitchen is in a poor state. (Did you know that they use bitumen-covered felt as standard on flat roofs in this country? The life-span is 10 years.) I want to replace it with a proper, pitched roof.

Come on, Mr Surveyor! Hurry Up!

- Pam

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Coffee, I smell coffee

You don't have to be around me for long to learn that I love my coffee. I don't mind if it is instant or filter, but it has to be good coffee - none of those "International Ghost" pot scrapings for me! I frequently refer to it as "the elixir of life" and claim not to be human until I've had two cups in the morning (not strictly true, my work blend is half decaf).

I am not a coffee snob. The only reason I have a cafetiere at work is because their instant coffee tastes truly disgusting. At home, we drink own-brand, freeze-dried instant coffee most of the time, keeping the freshly-ground filter coffee to savour on the weekends. Our coffee beans are French, but only because Carefour's own brand beans are cheapest around. (Three kilos for less than €10 almost justifies the travel costs to Calais.)

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to go coffee-tasting for work. At the time, I worked for a cosmetic surgery clinic and we were tasked with finding a cheaper source of supply for tea and coffee. Maureen and I thought it was a good excuse so we went to the Monmouth Street Coffee House for a session in their tasting room. I learnt about the different roasts and how they affect the flavour; the different tastes which come from the various varieties of beans and how that taste changes depending on the roast; why coffee should be stored in the fridge or freezer; why it goes "off" fifteen minutes after brewing; that water decaffeination should be the process of choice when you are buying decaffeinated beans; etc, etc. (If you are ever in London, find the time for a visit. It's well worth it.*)

All of this is a long preamble to explain what kept waking me up on Saturday morning. We had friends staying over; I went to bed around midnight, DH came to bed some time after 3. I woke up at 4.30am, smelling coffee. My first thought was that DH had ground the coffee for the morning and the smell was drifting up the stairs.

The next time I woke up, I thought "That coffee smells strong, someone must have switched on the pot". I looked at the clock, discovered it was 5.30am (so highly unlikely), and went back to sleep before I could puzzle that one out. The coffee smell kept getting stronger. And kept waking me up! Somewhere in my sleep befuddled brain, I discounted the coffee pot theory and decided that DH must have got ground coffee on his hands. But I couldn't smell coffee on him. I puzzled this one for a while, drifting in and out of sleep.

When I finally woke up properly, the coffee smell had dissipated. In the kitchen, I discovered that DH hadn't ground any coffee. More puzzlement. Looking out the window, I saw that it had rained earlier. Slowly, very slowly the penny dropped. D'oh!

Mental head-slap time! We live 3 miles from an instant coffee factory. Normally, you can't smell it here, but when it's about to rain you can. The one thing that hadn't occurred to my sleep befuddled brain was that I was smelling the coffee company! It must have been quite a storm, because the smell was the strongest I have ever smelt.

- Pam (Coffee? You called?)

* If you are into tea, then Fortnum & Masons is the best place to go to taste a wide variety of teas. Their Afternoon Teas are good, too.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Date to remember

Most people remember where they were on September 11th 2001, how they heard the news, who they were with, etc. For Londoners, yesterday, the 7th July, was another of those dates. Yesterday was the third anniversary of the London Bombings in 2005.

It sounds cliched but I can remember exactly where I was and what I did for the whole day. I was working from home in the morning, waiting for my new laptop and printer to be delivered. To use my work laptop, I had to plug it into the phone socket (it was still on dial-up), so I was tethered to the sofa, with the TV on in the background. BBC1 was showing one of it's house-buying programs.

The first mention of the bombings was from the delivery man who brought the printer (the laptop arrived separately, later). It was about 9.50am. He said there'd been an explosion on the Underground. My first thought: "Oh, God. Don't let it be our fault!". (The engineers I worked for had multiple large contracts with London Underground.)

At 10am, the news came on the TV and I watched as the truth emerged. Four explosions. Three different tube trains and a bus.

The laptop arrived at around 11am. This delivery man was less chatty. Worried. Frightened even.

I packed up and drove to work. Even though I was listening to the car radio, I remember an absence of noise. There was very little traffic and everyone was driving slowly. Nobody was in the fast lane. Everywhere, the matrix signs read:

Avoid Central London
Roads Closed
Turn on Radio

On the opposite side of the M25 a string of Surrey Ambulances headed towards the M4.

At work, the emergency plans had come into action. The IT department where I worked had set up a call centre, helping HR to track down every member of staff who either worked in our London offices or was known to be up in Town for a meeting. By 2pm, all heads were accounted for. Nobody was missing. Or injured. Nobody had immediate family among the victims.

By 3pm, our CEO had emailed every member of staff (all 15,000 of us) informing us that even if he had to walk there, he would be working in our Central London office for the next few days. And so would all the members of the Management Board. He left unspoken that if the board members didn't make it in, they wouldn't have jobs. But we all knew. I've always liked him for that - he wouldn't put the staff through anything he wasn't prepared to face himself.

I drove a colleague home that afternoon. He was quite shaken up, one of the more sensitive types. I think he'd have liked to have had a cry, if he could have got away with it. There were many people who felt like that on 7/7.

- Pam

Wednesday 2 July 2008

"UK life costs 'at least £13,400'."

The BBC Breakfast program this morning was all about a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on how much a reasonable standard of living costs in Britain today. Apparently, for a single person it's £13,400 per annum.

"A single person in Britain needs to earn at least £13,400 a year before tax for a minimum standard of living, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) says.

A couple with two children need to spend £370 a week and a pensioner couple need £201 excluding housing and childcare costs, the charity says."


I found the budgets fascinating. They used focus groups to establish what would make a reasonable budget for each group to live on, right down to a shopping list for groceries and the component amortized cost of the dustpan and brush used in the kitchen. The groups also decided what was a luxury item (and, therefore excluded) and what is a necessity.

The closest thing for us, I guess is the budget for a couple with two children. Total cost per week, excluding childcare £435.96. I've found myself studying the lists and comparing our real life to them.

Mr and Mrs Average spend more than we do on food and drink, eating many more biscuits (that's cookies for you Americans) and preprepared foodstuffs than we do. However, we spend double on housing costs - they pay about a third of our mortgage payment in rent. And I'm not sure if the assumption that the Averages live in a "band B" council house is viable. Since the big sell-off of council homes in the 1980's (sold to their occupants at a deep discount), getting council housing has been well nigh impossible for anyone with a reasonable income. The BBC were quoting living costs of £27,000 per annum for a couple with two children, which is approximately the average salary in the UK. At that level, the council housing officers would expect the Averages to rent private housing.

(NB: The "band B" thing is council tax, our local property based tax. Housing is banded based on values and each property of a certain type in an area is considered to be in the same band and is, therefore, taxed at the same rateable value. If the Averages have your standard three bedroom British house, it would fall into band D, at twice the amount in the budget.)

On the clothing front, I spend less than the £516 per annum clothing budget Mrs Average is expected to spend. If she asked me, I'd suggest that a) she shops the charity shops for some things, and b) she gets up at 4am on the 27th December and goes to the Next sale (doors open at 5am) for work clothes and smart casual stuff. That would give her more for money.

My favourite item from Mr Average's clothing budget is the £5 woollen hat, which is estimated to last for 5 years. Somehow, I don't think so - if it really is wool, it would cost more than that (even if Mrs Average did the necessary with the needles). And why does he have walking boots when his wife doesn't? And wellies, ditto.

OK, I've had my bit of fun. On the whole, I think these budgets are far more realistic than the figures the government bandy around and use to set benefits such as the state pension and unemployment benefit. At least with these budgets, you can live.

- Pam